(Survival manual/6. Medical/b) Disease/Ricin)
Ricin is a potent toxin that could be used as an agent of biological warfare or
as a WMD. Derived from the beans of the castor plant (Ricinus communis), Ricin is native to Africa and common in warm climates worldwide. More than 1 million tons of castor beans are processed every year worldwide. It is easily and inexpensively produced, is highly toxic, and is stable in aerosolized form. Ricin has no treatment or vaccine, but it is not communicable from person to person.
Although a large amount of ricin would be necessary to produce many casualties, it would be highly effective within a closed environment. Ricin can be disseminated as an aerosol, by injection, or as a food and water contaminant. Its use as a food and water contaminant is a major concern. If ricin were used in that fashion, resultant deaths could overwhelm local health care resources.
Ricin is a protein derived from the beans of the castor plant (R communis). Castor beans are used in the production of castor oil, a brake and hydraulic fluid constituent. Ricin makes up 3-5% of the “waste mash” that is produced during this process. Separating out this protein is not difficult; it only requires chromatography, a common undergraduate chemistry skill.
Symptoms from exposure to ricin depend on the route of exposure and the amount of absorption. Routes of exposure are respiratory (inhaled aerosol), gastrointestinal (GI [ingested]), and percutaneous (injected).
If exposed to ricin through inhaled aerosol, it will most likely affect numerous individuals simultaneously. In this case, a cluster of people would develop similar symptoms over a brief period, typically within 8 hours following inhalation. Such an occurrence would point to the possibility of an intentional act. People exposed to the ricin may experience symptoms such as fever, nausea and vomiting, a progressively severe cough, and congestion in the nose and the throat. Other symptoms associated with inhalation of ricin include difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest. With significant exposure to ricin, breathing difficulties occur within 12-24 hours. A chest x-ray may reveal excess fluid in the lungs.
If exposed to ricin by ingesting contaminated foods or beverages, symptoms may initially mimic food poisoning, usually within 6 hours after ingestion.
People who ingested ricin may feel abdominal pain, often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. Because of this, they may also become dehydrated.
Although ingesting ricin is usually less toxic than exposure through inhalation, with significant amounts of the poison, resulting symptoms may become more severe and possibly result in death.
When to Seek Medical Care
A person exposed to ricin should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
If in an area where ricin has been released and people may have been exposed to it, they must
immediately leave that area and move to an area with fresh air.
If near an area where ricin has been released, people must wait for emergency personnel to advise
them regarding appropriate evacuation procedures.
In an aerosol attack, people should use protective masks that are effective in preventing toxicity.
To avoid possible contamination, people exposed to ricin must remove and dispose of any
clothing and thoroughly wash their skin with copious amounts of soap and water.
If their eyes are irritated, people must wash them out with water.
No antidote or vaccine is available for ricin. Regardless of the route of exposure, treatment remains mainly supportive.
If exposure is from inhaled aerosol, the person may need assistance with breathing. If particularly severe, the person who was exposed may require intubation and use of a ventilator.
If ricin was ingested, the stomach may need to be pumped (called gastric decontamination). Superactivated charcoal may also be given to help soak up the poison. To treat dehydration, intravenous fluids may be given.
Antibiotics serve no role in the treatment of ricin poisoning.
Medications may be given to treat seizures and low blood pressure that are sometimes associated with exposure to ricin.
In the case of ricin exposure by injection, antibiotics may serve to prevent infection. A tetanus immunization may also be given as a precautionary measure.
The only effective prevention against a biological attack with ricin is avoidance; unfortunately, no antidote or vaccine exists. Currently, investigations are ongoing for possible vaccines and ricin inhibitors. Protective masks have been shown to be effective in preventing toxicity during an aerosol attack.
Although ricin is not the ideal biological warfare agent, it remains a threat, primarily as a food and
water contaminant. Ricin is widely available and easily produced. With the increasing number of biological threats, hoaxes, and “how to” Internet resources available, this threat has the potential to become reality. Therefore, being familiar with ricin’s characteristics is important
Depending on the dose and the route, death can occur within 36-72 hours following the time of exposure. If death has not occurred within 3-5 days from the time of exposure, recovery